In October of last year the leader of the New South Wales Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, Robert Borsak, and his state director, Filip Despotoski, drove to Canberra to meet with One Nation party leader Pauline Hanson and her chief adviser, James Ashby.

They were there to discuss the possibility of the two parties exchanging a preference deal for this Saturday’s NSW election, trying to beat the Nationals to the task.

“Basically we thought, Labor has said they won’t talk to One Nation, the Libs have said they won’t talk to One Nation, but we knew Nationals might, so [Despotoski] and I went down and met up with Ashby and Pauline and we had a cup of tea and it was all nice,” Borsak told Guardian Australia.

On that visit, it seemed to Borsak, a deal was likely and in the following months, when the former federal Labor leader Mark Latham was announced as the party’s leader in NSW, the two parties nutted out an agreement.

They would each do a preference swap in the upper house, One Nation would agree not to run candidates in the lower house seats of Orange and Barwon, and the two parties would make deals in certain lower house seats.

The deal never went ahead, and while the reasons are contested – Borsak claims Latham “reneged” at the 11th hour, while Latham told Guardian Australia the terms proposed by the Shooters were “never feasible” – it set the scene for a bitter fight between the two rightwing parties in the race to secure what could be the balance of power in NSW.

Saturday’s election could well deliver control of both houses of the state parliament to the crossbench, where right-leaning parties could wield the balance of power if neither Labor nor the Coalition manage a majority.

The Shooters are hopeful of picking up two more lower house seats now held by the Nationals in Barwon and Murray, as well as holding on to their current seat of Orange.

In the upper house the Shooters should hold their two current seats and could pick up a third, while One Nation looks set to win at least one, leaving the Christian Democrats party hoping to cling to the two seats it holds.

Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm’s gamble to quit Canberra for NSW appears to have backfired, with most pundits predicting he’ll fail to pick up the necessary votes required to secure a quota. Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives aren’t expected to win a seat.

“Realistically in the upper house you’re looking at the Shooters party, the CDP and One Nation,” the ABC’s election analyst, Antony Green, told Guardian Australia.

“The presence of One Nation this time lobs something new into the pool [but] I think the Shooters easily get one, possibly two. In the last four elections the Shooters have been going up while the CDP goes down [but] I don’t think the Australian Conservatives will eat into the CDP vote much.”

The feud between One Nation and the Shooters has played out in an increasingly bitter countdown to polling day among the minor parties.

The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party says the less it has to do with One Nation’s Mark Latham the better
The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party says the less it has to do with One Nation’s Mark Latham the better. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

In March, Latham publicly accused the Shooters’ candidate in Murray of having “pledged” to support Labor in the event of a hung parliament, and “backing Labor’s agenda for Green water policies, an Indigenous treaty, gender fluidity in schools and a zero-carbon NSW economy”.

Borsak calls it a “24-carat lie”, and says of Latham that “if he gets in here, the less we have to do with him the better”.

Complicating things for the Shooters is the anti-gun campaign from the Coalition in the final week of the campaign. While it appears aimed at Labor, the mudslinging has as much to do with trying to curtail the flow of National party votes to the Shooters.

The NSW government has also rolled out the former prime minister John Howard to spearhead an anti-guns campaign in the wake of the Christchurch terror attack.

While Borsak has sought to downplay the Shooters’ ambitions for changes to firearms laws in the wake of the terror attack, the party has long resented the Howard-era gun reforms which underpin NSW’s firearms laws.

Following a review of the National Firearms Agreement in 2017, Borsak called the Howard reforms “draconian”, and unsuccessfully sought to move amendments to the NSW Firearms Act which would have made pump action shotguns easier to access and allowed “personal and property protection” as a genuine reason for holding a firearms licence.

The party has also long campaigned for the NSW Firearms Registry to allow greater access to gun silencers, something used as ammunition against the party by the Nationals in the final week of the campaign.

John Howard on the campaign trail in Penrith with Gladys Berejiklian
John Howard on the campaign trail in Penrith with Gladys Berejiklian. Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

But there’s no doubt that a party once based around a single issue has morphed into a force in NSW by tapping into the deep disillusionment in regional Australia about their traditional party, the Nationals, in the wake of personal scandals, concerns over water management, and their seeming inability to deliver on resources for their communities, particularly in health.

Borsak is keen to highlight the Nationals’ failure to defend water rights and fight for hospitals and health care in regional Australia, and his party has shrewdly selected candidates with deep roots in their communities: a cattle farmer in Barwon, Roy Butler, and a farmer in Murray, Helen Dalton.

On One Nation’s side is the reach afforded to Latham by virtue of his existing profile and a commercial media landscape keen to eat up the ratings his rhetoric apparently provides.

Latham has a Twitter following of more than 26,000 and appears regularly as a guest on Sydney radio station 2GB and the Sky News Outsiders program he was sacked from hosting in 2017. He also makes regular appearances on Channel Seven’s Sunrise and was featured in a 60 Minutes special in the lead-up to the election.

“I think he’s a risk to everybody, quite frankly,” Paul Green, the CDP upper house MP fighting to be re-elected, told Guardian Australia.

“He gets a lot of airplay on the morning shows, 2GB, he’s everywhere,” he said. “We can’t compete with that. The only way we can compete with Mark and One Nation is our track record, you’ve just got to trust that people see that in the last eight years NSW has had the best economy and the best unemployment rate.”

But Green admits he’s “nervous” about his prospects. “I must admit as it gets closer I get a bit more nervous,” he told Guardian Australia.

“I think I’ve got a 50-50 chance, having the LDP behind us on the ballot paper might help me by 1% and that could be important.”

Also on One Nation’s side is its bigger campaign war chest. Guardian Australia has previously reported the party was funding the bulk of its campaign through loans from its Queensland national branch, raising questions about the party’s compliance with the stricter NSW campaign finance laws.

Disclosure records suggest the party is spending more overall than the other right-leaning minor parties. According to the NSW Electoral Commission, One Nation has declared $217,494 over the period, compared to $109,615 from the Shooters and $33,400 from the CDP.

But with Labor expected to increase its upper house quota off a low 2011 base, Rodney Smith, a politics professor from the University of Sydney, says it’s possible the right vote could eat into itself.

“The Shooters have been doing well [but] the entry of One Nation will draw away some of their support,” he said.

“We saw that in Queensland at the election before last. In that case, One Nation, Palmer and Katter had exactly this problem where they were all polling reasonably well but had limited success because each dragged down the other’s primary vote.”


Michael McGowan

The GuardianTramp

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